What do (online) customers want?

Trends and tips for entrepreneurs - online sales

Professor Gino Van Ossel is one of the top European experts in retail management and trade marketing. His entertaining presentations about shopping behaviour, retail strategy and e-commerce have taken him to more than 25 countries in four continents. In April, Lannoo Campus published his book "Omnichannel in Retail. Het antwoord op e-commerce" (Omnichannel in Retail. The response to e-commerce), which offers entrepreneurs guidance in developing their online sales strategy. Related to this, Vlerick Business School organises a new programme “Omnichannel in Retail” where Gino Van Ossel will discuss these trends as well.

Trend 1: Develop your online strategy primarily for your customer

Why do you need a webshop? Or why do you absolutely want to serve your customers online? Is it because the competition does and you do not want to be left behind? Or is it that you hope it will help you grow fast because you will be able to acquire a lot of new customers outside your current market?

These seem like good reasons, but actually it is better to focus on the customers. That is precisely the key to Amazon’s success. When CEO and founder Jeff Bezos floated the company on the stock market in 1997, he wrote in a letter to shareholders that Amazon is obsessively concerned with its customers and he promised to focus constantly on them. It is certainly no coincidence that the company, which now has an annual turnover of nearly 75 billion dollars, includes that letter in its annual report, year after year.

As entrepreneurs we can learn a lot from that, though we should not try to become a second Amazon. On the contrary, we should ask ourselves how, in terms of our DNA, our values, our strategy and our market, we can use the internet to serve our customers even better. If we do a good job of this, the turnover and profit will follow. That is why your online approach can and will differ from that of your colleagues.

Concrete tips:

  • Chart how the buying cycle works, i.e. from the seeds of a customer’s intention to buy, through the orientation phase up to and including the actual purchase and any after-sales service. Then ask yourself how you can improve that process for customers by using the internet and other digital solutions.
  • Involve customers in thinking about solutions. Ask them what they are not so keen on when it comes to doing business with you and what they think is lacking.
  • Segment your customers and create a ‘character’ for each segment, a type of customer that can be considered representative of the segment. Give the character a name – Peter, for example. Describe how Peter lives, what car he drives and what matters to him. Ask yourself what Peter would think of every action you take. Would he be really pleased with it or would it leave him cold?
  • Then make a list of all your ideas for improving the purchasing cycle and customer relations. Put them into a simple diagram. Ask yourself, on the one hand, how feasible they are. On the other hand, work out how relevant they are for many customers. Then concentrate on the feasible ideas with big impact.
  • Our digital dreams are often bigger than the available budget. Find partners to help put them into practice. Suppliers can provide content and images, or even the use of an IT platform. Working together with colleagues, in a purchasing group for example, opens up a lot of possibilities.
  • Do not rely too much on research: dare to experiment. As long as the investment is limited, it is better to test something than to hesitate endlessly over whether customers are open to it.

Trend 2: Use the internet to simplify customers’ buying cycle

Online services and e-commerce score highly with customers because they make their lives much easier. You can buy a book without leaving the house. You can configure your car, select options and calculate the price without having to go along to the dealer. You can make an appointment with the hairdresser after closing time or on Sunday. And it is handy for customers to be able to check for themselves online whether their favourite restaurant still has a table for two free at eight o’clock.

So, making customers’ lives easier does not necessarily mean that you have to build a website or offer home delivery. Bakers who accept orders in advance for collection on Sunday morning can save their customers an advance visit to the bakery by accepting online orders and payments. You do not need a flashy webshop with nice photos of breakfast pastries either.

Concrete tips:

  • Look at the steps customers currently take and ask yourself how you can simplify them. Can you eliminate trips for the customer? Can you substitute personal contacts with a form of self-service? Can you let customers choose in advance at home, by putting your menu and daily specials online, for example, or by putting a catalogue online?
  • Dare to deviate from the well-trodden paths. If books can be delivered to people’s homes, why not new cars?  If pizzas can be delivered free within an hour, why can’t online purchases?
  • Be sure to let the customers themselves choose how they want to do business with you. Do not force them to do things your way. Mr Johnson only wants to buy things from the shop, but visits your website beforehand to get information. Mrs Peters chooses on the website, but thinks it is handy to be able to go and pick up her order in the shop.
  • Go for an all-round solution. If a customer prefers Wendy to cut his hair, make sure he can select the employee of his choice. If a customer wants to have his lunch on the terrace, let him choose that option.
  • Put customers’ minds at rest by confirming that you have received their requests and that everything is in order. An automated answer is all right, but make sure it is sufficiently personal. Even in the digital age we should serve customers with love.

Trend 3: Use the internet to enrich the buying cycle

You can make all the difference by offering customers a richer buying experience. Do not just give them your advice; let them find out about other customers’ opinions too. Do not just show the product, use videos to illustrate its use. Do not just let customers choose a colour sample but show what the final result in that colour will look like.

Concrete tips:

  • Systematically invite customers to give feedback on your products and service. They can do that by giving points (or ratings, usually with 5 stars) and by writing reviews.
  • Even if your service is good you may get negative reviews sometimes. They increase the credibility of the positive reviews. Apologise online too, but do it in a personal, non-standardised way.
  • Build in filters so that customers can find the most relevant feedback for them. Couples with children will evaluate a restaurant differently than a couple in love. Think of the ‘characters’ you have defined.
  • Find out what extra information or images could help customers make their choice. Dare to invite customers to help you with this as well, for example by letting them post photos of the final result.

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